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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Ben Goessling

Vikings' 41-17 loss to Packers shuffles NFC playoff picture

GREEN BAY, Wis. — For all the Vikings' stirring victories in a 12-3 start — their last two the result of a NFL-record 33-point comeback and the longest field goal in team history — the gnawing questions about their legitimacy had been stoked by the manner in which they'd lost three times.

They turned the ball over three times in a 24-7 loss to Philadelphia in Week 2. A week after their win in Buffalo in November, they were whipped 40-3 by the Cowboys in the second-most lopsided home loss in team history. And despite Justin Jefferson's 223-yard day at Ford Field, the Vikings' defensive issues led to a 34-23 loss in Detroit in December.

A New Year's Day loss at Lambeau Field rekindled all of those questions.

Plagued by mistakes ranging from slips to drops and coverage busts, the Vikings lost 41-17 to the Packers on Sunday afternoon, in a defeat that cost the Vikings a chance for home-field advantage and put the Packers back in position to reach the playoffs. Until they scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the Vikings trailed by 38 points; had the margin held, it would have matched the largest loss to the Packers in team history.

As players took the field under late-afternoon sun and unusually warm temperatures for New Year's Day, results from the early games ratcheted up the stakes for both the Vikings and Packers. The Eagles' loss to the Saints kept alive the Vikings' chances for the NFC's top seed and home-field advantage, while the Commanders' loss to the Browns put the Packers — who were once 4-8 — back in charge of their own playoff fate.

The Packers' midseason slide might have led more season ticket-holders to put their seats for the Jan. 1 game up for sale; Vikings fans made up a larger portion of the Lambeau Field crowd than they often do in Green Bay. The purple-clad contingent roared early, when Josh Metellus broke through the line of scrimmage and blocked Pat O'Donnell's punt, becoming the first player since 1995 to block punts in back-to-back weeks. It gave the Vikings the ball at the Packers' 2, with a chance for an early touchdown.

On first down, Kirk Cousins threw for Justin Jefferson, who slipped for the second time in the Vikings' first four offensive plays. On second down, the Packers stopped Dalvin Cook for a 1-yard gain, and center Austin Schlottmann — playing for the injured Garrett Bradbury — sustained an ankle injury that would take him out of the game. T.J. Slaton then tackled Cook for a 1-yard loss, and the Vikings settled for a field goal from the Packers' 2.

Keisean Nixon, the Packers' dynamic return man, had been questionable to play because of a groin injury, and Green Bay sent out Randall Cobb instead of Nixon to return Ryan Wright's punt after the Vikings' first drive. Nixon was stationed deep in the end zone for the kickoff after Joseph's field goal, though, and he burst through a hole in the middle of the Vikings' kick coverage unit for a 105-yard touchdown — Green Bay's first kick return TD since Cobb brought one back as a rookie in 2011.

Jaire Alexander, who began the game shadowing Jefferson after calling the receiver's nine-catch, 184-yard performance in Week 1 a "fluke," broke up a second-down pass for Jefferson in the first quarter, doing the Griddy along the Vikings' sideline to taunt the receiver. On the next play, Cousins' third-down pass bounced off T.J. Hockenson's hands, and safety Darnell Savage ran the interception back for a touchdown. Right tackle Brian O'Neill needed help leaving the field after the play; the team quickly ruled him out with a calf injury.

The Packers, who ended the first quarter with -1 passing yards, had a 14-3 lead.

Things continued to get worse for the Vikings the rest of the first half: Greg Joseph missed a field goal wide right, ending his streak of 21 consecutive made kicks. With the Vikings driving in the second quarter, coach Kevin O'Connell called a play where the Vikings lined up with two running backs and a tight end, then emptied the backfield to get Jefferson a matchup with rookie linebacker Quay Watkins. Cousins' pass to Jefferson was tipped by Slaton, then intercepted by Adrian Amos.

Rodgers hit Robert Tonyan for a 21-yard touchdown to put Green Bay up 24-3, on a play where Tonyan cruised past Metellus as the Vikings' lone deep safety. Mason Crosby's 56-yard field goal on the final play of the first half bounced off the crossbar and through the uprights, for his longest kick since 2020. The Packers led 27-3 at halftime.

Jefferson's first catch of the game didn't come until halfway through the third quarter, when Cousins hit him for 15 yards underneath the Packers' zone coverage. Amos broke up Cousins' end zone throw for Hockenson on the next play. On the play after that, Kenny Clark beat Ed Ingram for a strip sack and recovered the ball at the Vikings' 22.

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